A dynamic and intricate composition painted with the disciplined economy of form and color that defined Stuart Davis’ most advanced forays into his particular brand of abstraction, Ways & Means represents an important culmination of Davis’ artistic exploration. Unlike his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, most notably Jackson Pollock, Davis’ mature work is defined by abstract imagery that was rooted in ‘bold assimilation of the environment,’ which he deemed the ‘classic function of art.’ The energy and vitality depicted in works such as Ways & Means parallels the lyric and expressive canvases of Pollock but is representative of the persistent reevaluation of the themes Davis had explored throughout his career and his pursuit of the Cubist doctrine of ‘alloverness.’ Informed by his physical surroundings and often the aural harmonies of Jazz, Davis’ work earned him the title the ‘Ace of American Modernism’ and his powerful visual symphonies, such as Ways & Means, are enduring icons of what it meant to be an American artist in the mid-twentieth century.
A student of Robert Henri and an early proponent of the Ashcan School, Stuart Davis was also one of the first American painters to embrace the new forms of Modernism that changed the course of art in the early years of the twentieth century. Transformed by his exposure to the revolutionary Armory Show of 1913 at a young age, he embraced formal artistic ideas derived from European art theory. In particular he was inspired by the Fauvism of Henri Matisse and palette of Paul Gauguin and the Synthetic Cubism of George Braques and Pablo Picasso. However, Davis also maintained a remarkable dedication to presenting classic American subjects throughout the entirety of his 50-plus years of work. As he expressed it in 1940: “I am an American, born in Philadelphia of American stock. I studied in America. I paint what I see in America, in other words, I paint the American scene. I don’t want people to copy Matisse or Picasso, although it is entirely proper to admit their influence. I don’t paint paintings like theirs. I make paintings like mine. I want to paint and do paint particular aspects of this country that interest me. But I use, as a great many others do, some of the methods of modern French painting which I consider to have universal validity.” (as quoted in J.J. Sweeney, Stuart Davis, New York, 1945, pp. 23-24)
Ways & Means, like many of Davis’ paintings of the 1950s and 60s, is a reinterpretation of subject matter he first explored decades earlier. He first developed these themes in sketches of the harbor in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1932. Shortly thereafter he created a bold ink drawing called Composition No. 5 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) that combines these studies into a single image in which he could “see the dynamics of the angular variations and proportions created by the movement of lines in space.” According to Lowery Stokes Sims, curator of the seminal 1991 exhibition Stuart Davis, American Painter, Composition No. 5 has “a more fluid, improvisational character…[conjuring] what seems to be one continuous sweep in time of a line traveling through space, doubling back on and intersecting with itself.” (Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 231)
In 1954, Davis revisited this composition. Switching his focus from graphic line to color, he created a vibrant oil entitled Midi (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut), representing the same scene solely through color blocks in blue, orange, green, white and black against a shockingly pink background.
In 1960, Davis reimagined this imagery of Gloucester Harbor for a final time in the new and increasingly graphic style that distinguishes his work of the 1960s and synthesizes his entire career. The precision and detail in constructing rigid lines and areas of color reflect the artist’s interest in painting from a nearly architectural perspective. Davis rigidly limits his palette in Ways & Means to green, red, white and a touch of yellow, and evokes space by carefully balancing these contrasting colors. As white lines cut into a black solid and convey mass and depth, black lines energetically zig and zag through a white surround. An enormous tension emerges out of the interlocking planes pushing and pulling against one another, heightened by the very rich and visually active surface created by the heavy application of paint. All lettering and words have been eliminated with the exception of the artist’s large script signature, which becomes an important element in the total design. Davis relies on precise areas of bold color to establish a variety of spatial relationships, resulting in a composition that seems alternately complex and quite simple.
Ways & Means can be seen as Davis’ ultimate expression of the Gloucester imagery and of his ceaseless efforts to hone and refine his technique and to create vigorous and dynamic imagery. The artist's son, Earl Davis, wrote that the work is "the culmination of the evolution of my father's theory of Color-Space. In this piece can be seen his visual demonstration and proof of his realization that the thickened lines of the Drawing Itself actually defines the Color-Space." (unpublished letter, August 2015) A noted scholar on American Modernism and a contributor to both the Stuart Davis Catalogue Raisonné and exhibition catalogue for Stuart Davis, American Painter, William C. Agee summarizes, “In the 1932-34 Composition No. 5, drawing predominates; in the 1954 painting Midi, color reigns supreme; and in Ways & Means, Davis united the two elements, achieving a remarkable synthesis. By thickening the black and white lines, they became, simultaneously, color planes and shapes as well. In later versions of the composition, Davis also reversed the original colors in places, so that what were once black lines became white ones, and what, in 1932, had been the white surface of the paper or canvas (in the center), in the 1960 painting became a dense black field. Here, the interchangeability of solid and void and positive and negative demonstrates how Davis, even at the end of his career, continued to find ‘ways and means’ to invigorate his original but always evolving Cubist vocabulary.” (Stuart Davis: American Painter, p. 86)
Davis’ knowledge of and interaction with Abstraction and European Modernism are also evident in this work. Agee suggests that “besides the rich color, the way Davis’s compositions are constructed, with each shape having its own, autonomous identity and position—as if placed in as well as on the canvas…brings to mind Matisse’s cutouts” which had attracted much attention at the Museum of Modern Art’s Matisse retrospective in 1951. (Stuart Davis: American Painter, pp. 93-94) Additionally, Agee argues that the directness, surface patterning and rich lines of black and white can be seen as paralleling, and perhaps even responding to, the works of Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Davis’ distinct brand of almost proto-Pop work also seems to directly foreshadow, if not influence, the generation of Pop artists who followed him, including Roy Lichtenstein.
As fully manifested in paintings such as Ways & Means, Davis uniquely blended an unwavering American sensibility with European pictorial attitudes, new abstract developments and ideas from his own earlier work. Diane Kelder has observed, “Davis’s gestation of modern concepts was longer than that of most of his contemporaries and it produced a more original assimilation. When the initial enthusiasm for European vanguard art gave way to political and cultural isolationism in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Davis emerged as American modernism’s champion; he was the only major painter who never lost faith in its progressive character, nor his determination to reconcile the formal and philosophic issues it raised with the quality of the American experience.” (Stuart Davis: American Painter, p. 17)